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February 2, 2011

Tropic Rover, two masted 145-foot gaff rigged catamaran

Filed under: General — Richard Jordan @ 10:25 am

One time largest sailing catamaran in the world was built in Fort Lauderdale from 1961 to 1962.

Tropic Rover Under Sail

Are the boat building glory days of Fort Lauderdale past? Talking to Bixby Hill reminisce makes you wonder what has happened. Bix invited me to his home across from LMC and told stories of building boats on the New River during the 1950′s and 1960′s. The east and west banks downriver from I-95 have a rich tradition and colorful history of large yacht construction that makes you question if the mega yachts that populate our city today are really that advanced. In the 1950′s, Bix worked at Dooley’s Yacht Basin, what is now the east yard of Lauderdale Marine Center. There they built 140-foot minesweepers and exported them to the Netherlands to clear WWII mines from the North Sea. Equally busy yard hands on the north side built famous yachts such as the Prospector and Starlite and provided dockage for others such as the 115-foot motor yacht, Arethusa.

This was where, Bixby Hill says, they built the Tropic Rover from 1961 to 1962. She was a 145-foot gaff rigged schooner and the largest sailing catamaran in the world ever built to that point. For some perspective, that is 31-feet longer than the 114-foot trimaran winner of the 33rd America’s cup by BMW Oracle. Sidney Hartshorne, a long time Shady Banks resident, designed and commissioned the project. They leased the woodland from Summerfield Boat Works on the north side of the river across from Dooley’s. They actually had to clear the trees and shrubbery. The clearing was just west of the sheds than once lined the north bank of the final stretch of the New River. Below are excerpts from my November 6, 2010 interview with Bix at his home in Starlite Landing:

Tropic Rover

RJ: When did you arrive in Fort Lauderdale?
BH: During WWII I was stationed at the Coast Guard base in Miami. Bahia Mar was originally a US Coast Guard base too. I traveled up and down the coast on patrol and came to know the area. In 1950, I owned four lots across from the Hortt School in Shady Banks. George Gill came along one day and said he needed those lots for his subdivision. He was building homes in the area and dredging the two canals that run north and south. So I traded my four lots for this property here with a nice new seawall. After the war, I worked as a foreman at Dooley’s building 116′ and 136′ minesweepers and exporting them to the Netherlands to clean mines left over from WWII in the North Sea. They had to be wood to avoid setting off the mines.

RJ: What was the area like back then?
BH: The original access road was from Davie Boulevard to Cypress Landing which is along the eastside where 15th Ave is separated by a median. That was where the Prospector was built for Jack Collison. Then the access road came on a diagonal through the middle of the room where we are right now to Starlite Landing and where Gil Sayward built the Starlite. Later they made 19th Ave which came in straight from Davie Boulevard which was convenient for me. Now they have blocked that off. All the houses you see now were built in the late 1950′s and 1960′s. If you look at my property here you see how quickly the shrubbery grows and what it looked like back them. You can see all the piles we have cut down recently.
After the minesweepers, I was working on Tropic Rover. Sid Hartshorne was a long time friend who also lived here in Starlite Landing. He like me was a boat builder from the northeast. Sid had this idea to build a 150-foot catamaran. I guess everyone thought it was crazy. Sid designed and organized the whole project. He leased the clearing across the river from Dooley’s. The company was called the Catamarans of Florida. We had an office in a trailer on the clearing. Sid convinced a bunch of investors from Nassau and from over here including the outboard maker Lee Johnson that it would be a good charter venture. It took us exactly 1 year to build the Tropic Rover from 1961 to 1962.

RJ: Was Tropic Rover glass or wood?
BH: She had Douglas fir frames double planked with plywood then glassed over with a fire retardant resin called Hectrin. It better be fire retardant with all that plywood! She was a dangerous fire hazard. She had a huge schooner rig with hollow box spars that we put in at Bahia Mar. Everything on her was massive. She was powered by twin cat diesels. Getting her down to Bahia Mar was quite an ordeal. I asked Sid, “Hey did you plan this out?” He went down and measured the railroad bridge, and it only had 40-foot horizontal clearance. Tropic Rover had 39-foot beam! We barely squeezed through there. I remember one of the tugs breaking a window.

Tropic Rover Being Launched

RJ: What happened to her?
BH: It was pretty successful I guess. They featured her in Life Magazine. Except that the Bahamians wouldn’t let the charter group settle in over there. They actually had to start out and pick up passengers at Port Everglades. The Bahamian government did not want any charter groups settling in over in Nassau. They ran out most of the chartering schooners and ships.
Tropic Rover ran four or five day charters sailing over to Nassau and around the Bahamas to places such as Green Turtle Cay. She had at least six double cabins in each hull so that would be twenty four passengers there. I went over for the inaugural run to Nassau, and then they hired an all Bahamian crew. The captain’s quarter was athwartships in the platform. There was in the main salon a bar complete with brass railing. Aft most was the galley.
They ran her very successfully for five years. Then in 1967 bad weather pushed her into sunken barges at the Nassau Harbor. She ran around on the jetties. I have a newspaper clipping. After a two hour rescue operation, she sunk. No one was lost. All of the 35 passengers and 15 crew members were saved.

Since the days of Tropic Rover and Dooley’s Yacht Basin, much has changed. After construction of the Tropic Rover in 1962, Summerfield Boat Works dredged the land and put up a seawall. The area became the live aboard nook at the yard behind the little old house that still stands. Currently the yard is vacant after a failed development project during the land craze of the 2000’s. The foreclosed property recently resold for $1.25 million on September 14, 2010 to Point Breeze Holdings LLC according to Broward County Property Records. On the south side, Lauderdale Marine Center no longer does new construction instead opting for refits and service.

Watching the mega yachts go by from Bix’s home in Starlite Landing is like looking into the future. And the funny thing is these yachts do not seem that impressive knowing the lineage of our area. The 2010 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show saw the introduction of the largest yacht ever built in the United States, Cakewalk, a 281-foot mega yacht built at the Derecktor Shipyard in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It seems like all of us in Fort Lauderdale, the yachting capital of the world, should once again build something like Tropic Rover.

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  • Brenton

    I have just watched the James Bond Movie ‘Thunderball’ and Tropic Rover is shown in the harbor at night time and James Bond swims under her with the bad guys racing in a boat betwenn the pontoons

  • John Hanner aka “Billy Boats”

    I was fortunate to have sailed her as crew with Sid, Betty,Bruce,Ozzie and his son, Winnie and so many more. The 2 years I spent on her as deck hand were my fondest memories even to this day. It was like a dream during a different life time. Most all are gone now like the “Rover” herself, truly a story that should be told. I am awaiting the day when I will rejoin her and my old shipmate to continue our voyage. Billy Boats  

  • http://www.jordanyachts.com Richard Jordan

    Thanks for commenting in Billy. Hope I have such good memories someday. Richard

  • Hank

    I remember when A. C. Emerson’s “Summer Camp Afloat” chartered her for his summer camp in the Bahamas. After that they took over the Lloyd’s Hotel on Spanish Wells for their location.

  • Rusty Taccone

    Another interesting boat from Summer Camp Afloat was ” The Pride” a square rigged Barkentine . Spent some languid days on board , during the summer of 69. Wonder what ever happened to her.

  • Htonnemacher

    Rusty, did you work for SCA in 69? I believe “The Pride” was still being used in by SCA in the summer of 1971 when I was on Spanish Wells working for SCA. That’s the last I remember of her.

  • Jerry Stamm

    4 of us college students worked on the ss tropic rover in january of 195.  It was quite a experience. One of the biggest storms in the gulf stream was in progress as we crossed it to pick up our passengers in bimini.  Capt. sid hardshorne was not on board during the storm but their was a austraillian captain i recall.  I was seasick for 60 hours and had never been on the ocean before. The ship behind us I bleive was called the polonyesian lost a crew member overboard during the storm. We  sustained some major damage on board.  I remember I was at the Helm and when the aussie came over and saw that we were heading to the  north atlantic and were way off course.   Needleess to say he was very angry and drunk.  A very bad sign for a captain of a sailing vessel.!!!!  We were at sea for approximately 2 weeks.  During my seasickness ozzie the cook was serving and i took  one bite of the food and immediatley threw it overboard.  Ozzie became incensed picked up a butcher knife and chased me around the deck of the boat. I was saved by capt. sid hartshorne.  I often wondered what he thought of the whole situation.  This story has been told dozens of time s to friends and relatives over almost 50years.  Theres lots more to the story.  Best Regards, Jerry Stamm   at JSrunfun@aol.com

  • Katuniverse

    The aussie was Roy if he was the tall quy with a goatee and was as fond of drink as Sid. Bruce was the short aussie, usually sober. I do not think Bruce was on board that trip so it had to be Roy. He and Sid got into it in Nassau and Sid fired Roy and Bruce came aboard. Anyway that storm broke the main boom and damaged one of the launches. The reason we were off course was to ride out the hugh swells that were hitting us and trying to get to the lee of the banks. The Polynesia of Mike Burks Windjammer fleet out of Miami was astern of us as well as Yankee Clipper and Mandalay, all competition. Ozzie was the cook for better or worse and his son was our engineer. It is nice to talk and remember, I am the young skinny kid named Billy in those days. Sid was like my dad and he was losing the ship to money troubles so he was understandably out of sorts over it. More later…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/alison.a.kruse Alison A. Kruse

    Do you remember the “Sea-Fari” treasure-hunting camp for kids run off that boat in Bimini by chance back around 1968? My Dad was Captain Kruse who found a Spanish Galleon wreck and treasure that the Florida State claimed was within their borders (reduced from then 12 miles out to standard 3 miles today) and seized with armed Coast Guards with machine guns and put in Pensacola Museum (and many pieces of treasure have mysteriously disappeared over the years)? he was also on Joan Rivers short-lived show, called “That Show” with Recardo Montalban talking about the treasure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alison.a.kruse Alison A. Kruse

    My Dad was one of the Sea-Fari camp Captain heads during the sinking of Tropic Rover — Bob Kruse. He said the parents of the
    summer camp kids were there on board during the storm — including a pregnant
    woman. He said the Bahamian crew they were forced to use crashed the boat then took ALL the
    lifeboats, leaving the parents/kids stuck trying to get everyone off
    onto a pier it was bashing up against because there was no lifeboats
    left. He said the next morning, it looked like a pile of matchsticks
    from bashing all night against the rocks. Every kid on those Spanish treasure hunting exersions fondly remembered the time they found an actual treasure ship — even thought the Florida government took it all away claiming ownership.

  • Anonymous

    I spent three summers on Grand Bahama, at the Jack Tar Hotel, with Summer Camp Afloat. I’m thinking that was in the early sixties. Anyone else out there a participant ? I remember a Jeff Birch, Eric Runnerstrom, and Charlsey from California, The SCUBA diving on the 80 ft reef was outstanding, with dive guide Nigel Froome.

  • Pat Krause

    My husband Mike Krause was a crew member on the Tropic Rover in 1965 along with….Thomas Owen Mechum, Billy Alan, Betty, and Anna Mason Willier. Ozzie was his mess mate, and Burnell his engineer. He remembers the treasure hunt sponsored by General Mills. He would love to make contact with anyone that was on the Tropic during that time.

  • Pat Krause

    Some pics from Tropic Rover days. My husband Mike Krause at the helm. Also, picture of my husband and Billy Allen

  • Pat Krause

    Also, picture of Mike Krause and Thomas O. Mechem aka Tucker

  • Bob Colf

    For you and Jerry I remember Well Roy jumping from the Seawall by the Purple Onion pulling himself aboard and running up to Sid with his Knife Pulled. I took over as the acting First Mate from then until I left for Service in the Navy March 1965. I believe Dave Gruten took over as the First Mate. My most exciting moments was walking the Broken Boom and lashing the damn thing down …sewing up that #2 Foresail took a week.

  • David Grudin

    I worked on the Tropic Rover with Bob Colf and took over for him as first mate when he decided to get some engine room experience. He was a good first mate.I remember the trip where the boom broke after the Rover jibbed. Sid’s back was out and he didn’t make the trip.The ‘captain” for the trip was Bruce who spent the ruff part of the trip in his cabin leaving Bob and the rest of us to fend for ourselves. I had previously worked on the Brigantine Yankee so I had some experience. The only one that could handle the Rover was Sid and he wasn’t there.Bruce wanted to put in a mayday and was in touch with Sid on the radio.Sid wouldn’t allow that to happen.Great adventures and memories.I ran into Sid 20 years later when I was commissioning my own boat in Summerfield He hadn’t changed.He was trying to put up my wife.

  • David Grudin

    Jerry,I remember you.I think I tied you to the foremast so you wouldn’t fall overboard.

  • David Grudin

    I left just before your husband came aboard.I introduced Tuck to the Rover and Sid and was first mate at the time.Best Regards David

  • Pat krause

    Just discovered your entry….would be extreamly grateful if there is anyway you could help me reach Tucker

  • David Grudin

    Last I heard was in the late 80″s,he had a hotel on Culebra near Puerto Rico.We come from the same area in N.J.so I can make some inquires.My emaill is dgrud@yahoo.com .

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